People often ask me which has been my favorite cruising area. I respond to them with a very definite “that depends.” Over the years, I’ve been to many popular cruising grounds; The Caribbean, Mexico, the San Blas Islands, Hawaii, the South Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia and most recently Southeast Asia. Every area has its positives and negatives, its challenges and rewards, its special idyllic spots and its latrines. I have fallen in love with so many areas along the way, causing me to slow down and spend another season absorbing all that a cruising region has to offer. Choosing my favorite is like trying to pick my favorite chocolate out of a box of See’s Candies. They’re all different and all great!
For its proximity to the United States, Mexico offers some great cruising. With plenty of marinas and other facilities for yachties, it’s a great place to start out and then ease into the cruising lifestyle. I particularly enjoyed the solitude and rugged beauty of the Sea of Cortez, but the “Gold Coast” is great fun, easy cruising and offers some of the best scenery Mexico has to offer. I whiled away many lazy weeks in the cruisy little town of Zihauatanejo, enjoying the beaches, bars, food and local people. This place is truly a “Margaritaville.”
For the SCUBA diving, the western Caribbean, along the east coast of Central America is hard to beat. This area is home to the second largest reef system in the world, stretching hundreds of miles from Mexico to Honduras. The sea life is abundant, and one could live off the conch, lobster, crab and fish they could catch.
From a pure sailing standpoint, northern Queensland in Australia is hard to beat. We had more days of downwind-trade wind sailing than any other place I’ve been. Add to that the protection and attraction of the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands and a couple of great annual regattas and one can see why people keep boats permanently berthed in this area.
New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Islands offer some wonderful cruising opportunities in a first-world, English speaking environment, close to metropolitan Auckland. New Zealand is a great place to get work done on one’s boat and then enjoy some summer cruising while sitting out the South Pacific cyclone season. With its pristine environment, gorgeous scenery and wonderful people, it’s not hard to see why so many yachties fall in love with New Zealand.
The best of the best, I would say would be the South Pacific Islands. The “Coconut Milk Run,” from the Marquesas in the east across to New Caledonia in the west, embodies what cruising is all about for me; exotic and far away places, trade wind sailing, pleasant weather, beautiful island landscapes, interesting and primitive cultures, palm trees, rugged volcanic islands, coral atolls and white-sand beaches.
Within the South Pacific chain, I would have to say that Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) is my absolute favorite. Why? I suppose that it is because it is somewhat off the beaten path, it is less visited, the culture is most primitive, the scenery tremendously beautiful, and there are endless opportunities for “National Geographic” moments. Quite simply, it is virtually a lost world.
Vanuatu is a chain of approximately 80 islands spreading nearly 500 nautical miles in a North-northwest to South-southeasterly direction. Most of the islands are volcanic in origin, with little, if any fringing coral reef. A few of the island’s volcanoes are still active, which makes things a bit interesting from time to time. Vanuatu is located between Fiji and New Caledonia, roughly 900 nautical miles north of the northern tip of New Zealand. The landscape is ruggedly beautiful and mostly covered in lush tropical rain-forest. There are plenty of white sand beaches where you’d be hard pressed to find a human footprint.
Arrival and departure formalities for Vanuatu can be completed at in either of the two main towns, Port Vila on the island of Efate, or Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo, or in the remote outpost of Port Patteson on the island of Vanua Lava. The process is relatively easy, and the officials were generally quite professional. There is an Australian Consulate in Port Vila where you can easily organize your Australian visas if you plan to head west afterwards.
The best provisioning is in Port Vila, which is the capital and largest town. There were at least two good grocery stores as well as the “local market.” Some gourmet shops in town offer unexpected delicacies and duty free alcohol is as cheap as it gets. Fuel and some parts/repair facilities are available in Vila, but facilities for yachties are pretty scarce elsewhere. That said, the further one ventures from civilization, the richer the experiences you are likely to have. Visits to the extreme ends of the chain-the Banks and Torres Islands in the north, and Aneyteum to the south-will usually mean a beat one way or the other, but is well worth it if you want to go remote and experience native life as it was hundreds of years ago before the Europeans arrived.
Espiritu Santo or “Santo” was the site of a large military base and home to thousands of US troops during WWII. Today, it is a rather quiet and non-descript little town. Its main attractions are the wreck of the SS Coolidge, a sunken cruise ship turned troop carrier during WWII, various other dive sites, and the WWII relics scattered about the island. James Michener wrote about his time here during WWII in his first book “Tales of the South Pacific,” which was later adapted to stage and screen as “South Pacific.” It’s a great read and well worth snooping around for in some used book stores to get a feel for the history of the area.
The people of Vanuatu, called Ni-Vanuatu, are a mixture of Melanesian, from the western South Pacific/SE Asia, and Polynesian from the eastern South Pacific. Many choose to live “Kastom,” that is in their traditional lifestyle. Their homes are dirt floored, thatched huts, clustered in small villages on outlying islands. They survive by subsistence farming, fishing, and sometimes harvesting coconut to buy staple items from the copra traders that ply the waters of Vanuatu. While they are very warm and friendly people, they still practice many primitive customs and ceremonies which we might find interesting, if not bizarre. In some cases, their only contact with the outside world is from cruising yachts. Most of the villages welcome visitors and it is now very safe, as the last known act of cannibalism was in the 1960’s. Most Ni-Vanuatu speak three to five languages. The most commonly used language is Bislama, also known as Beche le Mer or Pidgin English. Most of them also speak the unique language of their island, and perhaps the language of their neighboring island. Many also speak English and/or French, a remnant of the English/French condominium government that was in place till 1980. Communication is rarely an issue.
Sailing and navigating in Vanuatu is generally pretty easy. There is much less coral reef than other parts of the South Pacific, adequate navigational aids, usually good sailing breeze, and hopping from one island to the next can usually be accomplished easily in daylight hours. The biggest concern is some strong, localized currents. Charts are generally pretty good, and there are a couple of cruising guides available. Most of the main islands offer at least a couple well-protected anchorages. Moorings are available in Port Vila and Santo, but when I was there, there was no marina. Port Vila has a few stern ties available along the town bulkhead.
Vanuatu offers a huge variety of interesting things to see and do. Here are a few ideas: Take a walk through a jungle rainforest to a hillside farm. Hike up to the rim of an active volcano on the island of Tanna and watch embers shooting up above your eye level. Dive on some WWII ship wrecks and “Million Dollar Point on Santo. Pet a 450 pound grouper lurking near the wreck of the SS Coolidge. Shower and do your laundry under a cool waterfall at the ocean’s edge at Asanvari anchorage on Maevo. Watch the “Small Nambas” on Malekula Island perform a native dance, the women wearing only grass skirts and the men penis sheathes. Witness the natives “land diving” on Pentacost Island. Climb down into a cave and swim in an underground river on Santo. Enjoy an excellent French meal in one of the waterfront cafés in Port Vila. Take your dingy upstream on Espiritu Santo to the “Blue Hole” and enjoy a refreshing swim in the crystal clear water. Swim with a dugong (manatee) at Lamen Bay on the island of Epi. Float on an inner tube down a cool, clear jungle stream on Santo. Pop into a nakamal at the end of the day and drink kava strong enough to render you legless with a local village chief. Spend a few hours in a Kastom village, chatting with the villagers and learning about the Kastom lifestyle. Enjoy a local meal of coconut crab or fruit bat. Drop into the clear coastal waters and spearfish for a coral trout, grouper or spotted sweetlips. Try your hand at a game of petonque (boulls) with the locals. Watch natives navigate home in dugout canoes powered by sails made of palm fronds held in the air on Epi Island. Troll for tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo or sailfish. Sail into the sunken cone of an extinct volcano at Ureparapara. Watch kids “surfing” in small dugout canoes. Shop for produce at the local open markets in Port Vila or Luganville. Barter with villagers for local fresh water prawns, lobster, coconut or paw-paw (papaya). Have a game of soccer with the locals on the pitch at Port Resolution. Dive for lobster with the chief at Cooks Bay on the island of Erromango. Barter for tasty local oranges on the island of Aniwa. Enjoy a buffet dinner and some local live music at Aore Resort across the Segund Channel from Luganville. Attend a Kastom ceremony or festival. Play a round of golf on the links on Efate. Enjoy the local brew, a Tusker beer while watching an island sunset.
Bartering is a way of life in the islands. Before you leave civilization, talk to the locals and other cruisers to see what the people living in remote areas are most likely to need. The local cruiser’s net is also a good source of information. As a general rule, we found that sugar, flour, fish hooks, batteries, ballpoint pens, clothing, books, magazines, medical supplies and cigarettes were in general demand. Also, prescription eyewear is badly needed by many of the older folk in remote villages. I suggest you take up a collection of disused glasses before you leave home or pick up pairs of inexpensive reading glasses at a $2 store.
Vanuatu is generally a pretty safe area, but whenever one travels to any undeveloped areas there are the usual potential health risks such as Malaria and Hepatitis. Make sure you consult a travel clinic and keep all your vaccinations up to date. It is advisable to always wear insect repellent during the dawn and dusk periods when bloodthirsty mosquitoes are feeding. As with anywhere in the tropics, heat, humidity, salt water and flies may increase the risk of severe infection. Even the smallest cut or scrape can become badly infected and require urgent medical care which may be days away. Treat any injury immediately with an antiseptic and keep it covered. Saltwater crocodiles are known to inhabit the waters around some of the islands. We heard rumors of one in Port Patteson and actually spotted one in the lagoon at Ambae Island. Unless you are Steve Irwin, I suggest you check with the locals before you swim or dive in an unfamiliar area.
Vanuatu seems to have something for everyone, and if you’ve got the time, I think its well worth spending at least one cruising season exploring.
For more information on cruising Vanuatu, have a look at the following web sites: